Just the Facts (by Paul W. Smith)
“The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
Anyone who can still remember the sixties will recognize this as the tagline for the TV drama Dragnet. For four seasons beginning in 1967, Sergeant Joe Friday and his sidekick Officer Bill Gannon investigated crimes in the city of Los Angeles. Sgt. Friday was known for his deadpan demeanor, and when interrogating a woman for an investigation he would typically say “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” This was back in the days when the truth was still the truth.
To tell the truth, that last statement is not strictly true. Truth has forever been a fleeting commodity, and “fake” is by no means breaking news either.
While Dragnet was built on true stories about facts, truth and facts are quite different, and the difference matters. Facts are the currency of scientists and engineers, based on experimental evidence and proven through calculation. More than mere theories, they are documented, verifiable, indisputable events. If all the science books, papers and digital records were to vanish, the facts would eventually re-emerge.
Truth is another matter entirely. Facts may factor in, but so does belief. Our own pre-conceived notions of reality – how we would like the world to be – are also a big part of what we perceive to be true. Facts can be presented out of context, leading to a totally different narrative and an alternate truth. Global warming is a fact; man-made climate change is true (or not) depending on your point of view (or political affiliation). One person’s fake news may be another’s reality-affirming truth.
This can be frustrating, but all is not lost. There are experts who can help sort out this mess. After a thorough scientific study, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, Professors at the University of Washington, have reached an important conclusion. The world is awash in Bullsh*t.
BS is certainly nothing new either, but in the digital age, BS in the media space can end up like a match tossed in a pile of gasoline-soaked tinder. It’s nice to share something and get a handful of likes from friends and family, and even better when comments (good or bad doesn’t seem to matter) ensue. The real Holy Grail of sharing something on the Internet is “going viral”, which the Urban Dictionary defines as an idea that increases exponentially in popularity.
In an attempt to short-circuit the potent mix of BS and the Internet, Carl and Jevin offer a class to help students identify and squelch BS. The result, Calling Bullsh*t, is aimed at stopping the spread of BS through social and news media. Their course focuses on the single most powerful form of misinformation, that which is shrouded in data and figures.
Graphs and numbers are the basic building blocks of good science. Under the auspices of skilled scientists and engineers, with the oversight of peer review, they lead to the development of proven facts. They can also carry an unjustifiable authority that many are afraid to challenge.
One treacherous example from the course involves something that is factual but also BS at the same time. This one trades on the fear that genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are potentially harmful. Someone who feels threatened by GMO’s might choose non-GMO Himalayan Pink Salt to season his or her food, and the product’s claim to non-GMO status is verifiable fact. The problem is that salt is a mineral that has no genes to modify.
Here’s another illustration. For an 11-year period beginning in 1999, there is a near perfect correlation between the marriage rate in Kentucky and the number of people who drowned while fishing. While fishermen might see this as justification for remaining single, there is no causative connection. Once again, BS is hiding behind a screen of graphs and numbers.
For centuries we have cherished the belief that information is good - the more, the better. The information fire hose that we are now drinking from has numbed our common sense and rendered our BS immune system inoperable. Once upon a time, there were editors whose job it was to filter out the BS from the actual facts. Today, we are the editors.
BS is a moving target, and the more we educate ourselves to recognize it, the more sophisticated it becomes. One recent example is the deepfake, where artificial intelligence technologies are used to produce authentic looking BS videos. A battle has broken out between AI factions that produce, and those that seek to recognize the bogus clips. With natural intelligence becoming increasingly rare, artificial intelligence may be our last hope for preserving the truth.
Jack Webb’s ‘Joe Friday’ character sometimes also used the phrase “All we know are the facts ma’am.” It’s what we think we know that poses the greatest danger.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40
years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.